The preservation of dying indigenous cultures around the world is just as important as ecological efforts to preserve natural resources, according to Prof. Wade Davis, anthropology, University of British Columbia.
Davis drew parallels between the struggle to preserve the state of Earth’s environment and the loss of biocultural diversity in Statler Auditorium on Friday.
An ethnographer, writer, photographer and filmmaker, Davis said he spent the majority of his career traveling and studying the cultures of indigenous peoples throughout the world.
“One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live amongst those who have not forgotten the old ways,” he said. “As we sit here tonight in Ithaca, we must realize the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning in the high arctic, or that in the high Himalayas, the Buddhists still pursue the breath of the dharma.”
Davis also stressed the importance of cultural relativism and using anthropology to understand other cultures.
“What [cultural relativism] means is that the other people of the world aren’t failed attempts at being you,” he said. “On the contrary, every single culture is, by definition, a unique answer to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human?”
Recounting his work in the Amazon, Davis described the relationship that the Amazonian people have with nature, calling them “natural philosophers” with unusual connections to their environment.
“Their hunters could smell animal urine from forty paces [away] and tell you what form of life left it behind,” he said. “The only scientific explanation is trial and error,” he said later, when explaining the possibility of such an intense relationship between people and their surroundings.
He criticized the Western idea that these cultures are destined to fade away with time and encouraged attendees to become “facilitators” in saving them.
“The entire role of humanity was not to change anything … all with the goal of keeping the world exactly as it was at the time of its creation,” Davis said.
Understanding the different cultures of the world can also lessen global conflict, according to Davis.
“In the immediate wake of 9/11, I wanted to tell the story of Islam … to remind people that if it had not been for Islamic scholars, the genius of the ancient Greeks would never have survived to inform the Renaissance,” he said.
The use of anthropology to broaden people’s moral and intellectual horizons creates “moments that allow us all to hope,” he added.